The 3rd of March 1818 was an important day in the history of Scotland’s canals.

The first ground was broken marking the beginning of the construction of the Union Canal. The canal, which navigates from the centre of Edinburgh to The Falkirk Wheel where it joins with the Forth & Clyde Canal, was designed by the engineer Hugh Baird, and supported by the great Scottish engineer Thomas Telford.

This is one of the earliest plans of the Union Canal. Dating to 1822 when the canal was first opened it shows the route of the canal through the lands of Lord Buchan in Winchburgh.

The canal is unique in that it follows a contour of 240 feet, maintaining a level along its entire length. Unlike its cousin the Forth & Clyde, vessels did not need to navigate locks to travel the Union. This design, sometimes called ‘The Mathematical Canal’, allowed boats to move faster and more efficiently along its route.

It was the growth of Edinburgh and the building of its New Town that was the driving force behind the canal’s construction. The expanding city needed coal – and lots of it. The canal provided the means to move large quantities of the fuel from the central belt into the city to feed its need for energy. In return, the city’s horse manure (for these were the days before motorised engines) was transported from the city to be used as fertiliser on farmers’ fields. A fair trade, I’m sure you’ll agree!

This plan from 1870 shows the original terminus of the canal in Edinburgh as it would have looked when the canal first opened in 1822. The basin known as Port Hopetoun and Port Hamilton were infilled during the 1920s.

Trade on the canal was relatively short lived. In 1842, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway was opened and passenger numbers using the canal began to decline. Commercial trade struggled on into the 1920s, but sections of the canal were beginning to be infilled -such as Port Hopetoun in Edinburgh and stretches through Wester Hailes. The canal was finally closed for navigation in 1965.

This warehouse from the mid 19th century was used by the fleet of passenger boats. These passenger boats, called Swifts, carried people from Edinburgh to Falkirk – a journey of  seven hours. Up to 20, 000 people a year would use this service. This was the fastest means of travel until the arrival of the Edinburgh to Glasgow Railway in 1842.

In 2000 and 2002, the Union and Forth & Clyde Canal were re-opened as part of the Millennium Link project, which breathed new life into the waterways. The canals have now been reborn as popular tourism attractions and are used by thousands of people as a quick and healthy commuter link.

The Union Canal’s Avon Aqueduct is the largest aqueduct in Scotland and a magnificent feat of engineering. Designed by Hugh Baird, it is 247 metres long, 26 metres high and 7 metres wide. The canal is carried across the aqueduct in an iron trough that rests on the hollow masonry piers of the structure.

200 years have passed since the moment the Union Canal was first carved through the heart of the central belt. It may be home to cyclists and social enterprises rather than Clydesdale horses and coal scows today, but the canal continues to play an important role for Scotland. Long may it continue.

Chris O’Connell 

Heritage Manager, Scottish Canals

March 3rd 2018

Unlock the story of the Union Canal!

Want to explore the many stories of you Union Canal for yourself? Check out the Union Canal Unlocked app!